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Stump The Geeks: Remove data from hard drive, then trash it

By Tyler Dukes, McClatchy Newspapers –

Q: I have several nonusable hard drive-type pieces of equipment that have personal data on them that I cannot access to remove. I need to dispose of them or recycle — whatever is appropriate — but not with my personal data on them. I have a computer hard drive (just the hard drive), a portable USB hard drive that died and is not accessible, a couple of “old” hand-held storage devices and more. Where can I go to assure these are completely destroyed and my personal data (includes banking, etc.) is destroyed along with them?

—Katie M., Cary, N.C.

If you’re asking this question, you’re already one step ahead of anyone thinking about Dumpster-diving for valuable data.

Last month, we outlined a few options for responsibly recycling your electronics. Companies that deal with donated hardware often take great pains to protect this data. But when you’re forced to dump your obsolete gear at the recycling center, the risks can be real — even if you think that information is gone for good.

“Many people simply don’t realize that when they erase data it may no longer be visible to them but the data may still reside on the hard drive in unused sectors, which could be read with data recovery tools,” said Jeff Crume, distinguished engineer and IT security architect at IBM.

That means emptying your desktop’s recycle bin just isn’t enough. If the devices still work, Crume recommends data-wiping software designed specifically to overwrite everything on a drive using multiple passes. Darik’s Boot and Nuke, or DBAN, is one free option that can erase all data from any connected hard drive. DBAN is serious stuff, though, so Crume suggests removing any storage drives you don’t want wiped before you boot the program up. Find it online at

If your doomed device is a Mac, Bob Chandler of technology consulting service MacVantage suggests the built-in Disk Utility, which he said can securely and permanently delete information. But when your device is broken or inaccessible, these programs won’t do you much good. “If you have a storage device that you can’t access from your computer (Mac or PC), then you can’t use software tools to delete the data,” Chandler said in an email. “In this case, you have to physically destroy the device to make the data inaccessible.”

That’s when it’s time to forget about software and focus on hardware of the blunt force variety — and you don’t have to be picky.

Chandler says he drills holes through the entire drive — don’t forget your safety goggles. Crume said another option is to dismantle the device and sand down the hard discs themselves. “A less elegant but perhaps more satisfying solution is to smash the drive repeatedly with a hammer,” Crume said.

Whatever the method of destruction, there’s only one real requirement to satisfy. “The point is to make the drive damaged to the point that it can never be read,” Chandler said. “This is the only way to truly destroy your data on an inaccessible storage device.”

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